The Practitioners

There were a range of people who provided medical services in medieval England. They all used different methods, but recognised similar basic ideas about disease and healthcare.

Scroll down to find out about each practitioner.

The Apothecary

Also known as a spicer, the apothecary was a merchant trading in exotic substances, many of which were used to make pills, medicinal drinks, ointments and plasters. He traded in theriac, also known as treacle, which was a universal antidote against poison, as well as fragrant herbs which could be burnt to purify the air in the home.

The Cunning Woman

The cunning woman was consulted for her knowledge of magical procedures. She was often called upon when medical specialists had failed to provide cures, especially when witchcraft was suspected. The cunning woman could offer to detect the witch behind the illness so that he or she can be accused in court. She also knew the most effective charms against a range of ills, and the best herbs to use in combination with them.

Nun

The nun lived and worked in a medieval hospital. The hospital cared for a fixed number of sick or elderly people, who like the nun have taken vows on admission. She would have fed them, washed them and made sure that their bedding was clean. Most importantly, she communicated their spiritual needs to the hospital priests.

The Physician

This highly educated practitioner would have received some training at university, studying the works of the great medical authorities of the ancient world. He charged a high fee for his work that only the wealthier members of society could afford. He examined his patients’ pulse and urine to make his diagnoses. He prescribed changes in diet and activity as required, and recommended different medicines for purchase.

The Surgeon

The surgeon served an apprenticeship and could read enough to consult his astrological and lunar charts. His most popular treatment was bleeding, to remove excess blood from his patients. He would also pull teeth, lance boils, and stitch or cauterise wounds. His procedure for the removal of bladder stones could have been lethal.

A barber surgeon would have had many tools at his disposal, including:

Cupping glass – This was used to draw blood to the surface of the body for bleeding. It was heated to remove the air in it, which created suction.

Thread – It needed to be strong, smooth and well waxed to be used for repairing wounds.

Beeswax – This was used to lubricate the thread before stitching a wound.

Comb – This was useful for the many people who suffered from headlice.

Scalpel – These small, sharp knives were used for making incisions.

Forceps – These were used for removing foreign objects from inside a wound.

Candles – A surgeon needed these for the close examination of wounds.

Shaving brush and razor – As well as performing operations, a barber surgeon cut hair and shaved beards.

Needles – These were used for stitching up wounds.

Retractors – These were used for opening wounds or incisions.

Cauterising irons – These were heated and used to stop blood flow.

Saw – These were used to saw off bones during an amputation.

Fleam – A fleam was used for bloodletting.